The mononitro-substituted isomers of benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P), 1-, 3- and 6-nitrobenzo[a]pyrene (NB[a]P), are environmental pollutants and are metabolized to mutagens in Salmonella by rat-liver homogenate postmitochondrial supernatant (S9) fractions. In this study, activation of these compounds to mutagens was investigated using the hepatocyte-mediated Salmonella mutagenicity assay. Hepatocytes from rats treated with Aroclor 1254 activated both 3-NB[a]P and 1-NB[a]P to mutagens, while 6-NB[a]P was not mutagenic. The positive mutagenicity responses were functions of both the chemical dose and the hepatocyte concentration. By using a nitroreductase-deficient strain (TA98NR) and a transesterificase-deficient strain (TA98/1,8-DNP6), it was verified that the direct-acting mutagenicities of 1- and 3-NB[a]P primarily were due to metabolic processes involving nitroreduction while the S9- and hepatocyte-mediated mutagenicity responses were also dependent on transesterification. When compared with the mutagenic responses produced with S9, the mutations induced by 1- and 3-NB[a]P in the presence of hepatocytes were relatively more dependent upon nitroreductase metabolism and less on transesterification. Thus, intact hepatocytes were capable of activating 1- and 3-NB[a]P to mutagenic metabolites and some of these metabolites appeared to be different from those produced by S9.